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Time Bandits, written by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam, directed by Terry Gilliam, 1981, 120 min.
Terry Gilliam, the noted director, had his start with Monty Python, the famous British comedy troupe, as the animator for the wacky sequences that spliced together the TV show and the movies, and as a sometime actor and director. His first solo directorial outing, Jabberwocky, was a fun but slight medieval romp, while Time Bandits broke through in a way that established his name as a talent separate from his Python roots (of course his old friends do contribute to this movie, especially Michael Palin as the co-writer). Satiric, funny, episodic, Time Bandits is also one of the best picaresque movies ever made, with all the unevenness that such a structure implies. With adventure, epic battles between good and evil, a sympathetic hero, Gilliam's trademark skewed visual sense, and some jokes that might not be the best for young children, the movie really is a number of competing things rolled into one. Most of the time it works. It's interesting to look back on Time Bandits as the beginning of Gilliam's own career as a film-maker, and see the themes he has returned to over the years.
Time Bandits opens with a young child named Kevin, who lives with a frighteningly materialistic set of parents. They are solely focused on the consumer devices that they own and that their neighbours own; the adult dialogue is often in the background, but it's frequently hilarious. A group of dwarves burst out of Kevin's wardrobe and take him away, as they carry out a number of robberies across space and time. Their first robbery, a brilliant sequence where they steal everything from Napoleon, is especially funny, with some inspired comic work from Ian Holm as the famous conqueror. The dwarves have a map that plots all of the holes in space and time; it seems that they stole the map from the Supreme Being, who they were helping with creation, and now God wants the map back. The plot thickens, as we see that Evil is trying to steal the map. He does so by playing on their greed, leading them directly to a final confrontation in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. This is not quite the stunning climax that might be expected, but the kid's return to reality is also anti-climactic, so it becomes quite clear that Gilliam is satirizing the whole adventure formula at the same time that he is using it to grab the audience's attention. A tough balancing act, and Gilliam walks the wire with ease (and he has the advantage that people know what an ex-Python's sense of humour might be like).
The main character, Kevin, as played by Craig Warnock, is an admirable one. He's tough, adapts quickly, and while he usually provides the moral centre of the movie, he does make mistakes. A fine performance from Warnock, who avoids most of the clichés of child acting (anything else would have upset Gilliam fiercely, as is obvious from his DVD commentary). The historical characters are given good roles as well, especially Ian Holm's Napoleon and Sean Connery's Agamemnon (who shows a good sense of the cultural milieu he moved through, schemed in, and ruled, and his enmity with Clytemnestra is there for people who know the tragic story to come). John Cleese's send-up of Robin Hood is quite funny and thankfully brief, while David Warner's Evil has some of the best lines in the film (and provided the actor for a chance to play comedy). The time bandits themselves are well-played, even in some clearly dangerous scenes. The film sometimes condescends towards them, but like everyone else in the movie, their performances are distinct, and convey what's necessary even in the briefest of scenes.
When I originally reviewed Time Bandits, it was one of the very few fantasy films that had ever succeeded at the box office, never mind getting made in the first place. The only other examples were the abysmal Dragonheart or the wretched Willow. Fantasy was always a tough market, and Time Bandits pulled off quite a feat in its overall success, especially considering that it was made for $5 million and more recent fantasy successes such as The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter movies spent 20 times as much. Time Bandits does better at this genre than Gilliam's later attempt, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and while Time Bandits does not have quite the same sense of frenetic genius as in Brazil, it's a highly enjoyable film in its own right.
DVD Note: The DVD of Time Bandits was originally released in a Criterion Edition, which is now out of print and has been superseded by a 2-disc DVD set. The Criterion Edition does feature an audio commentary, mainly by Terry Gilliam himself (example: "I hate kids' films, I hate kid actors. They're all too cute." Or about the time bandits themselves: "They're greedy little bastards"), although other people contribute as well, such as Craig Warnock about what he does remember from filming the movie, Michael Palin on helping with the writing ("The film is celebrating a child's imagination"), John Cleese on how he got the idea for Robin Hood's character, and David Warner on wanting to play comedy. The newer Special Edition DVD drops the commentary in favour of a 30 minute interview with Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, as well as a more general look at Gilliam's career in the form of a 60 minute documentary from the Directors series, "The Films of Terry Gilliam."
First posted: June 9, 1998; Last modified: April 20, 2004
Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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